19 December 2016

Master of the game

by Marc Masurovsky

Mikhail Piotrovsky is a heavily-decorated, scholarly, and savvy art historian who has been raised in Soviet then Russian museology. He is a true son of Mother Russia.

In a Washington Post article dated April 23, 2003, Piotrovsky was described by Linda Hales as Russia’s cultural ambassador. In an interview given that year, he described the Hermitage as a mirror of Russia. At that point, he was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deputy on the President’s Council on Culture, “Russia’s official voice in matters of culture.

To demonstrate Piotrovsky’s willingness to wield the stick in order to get his way, he has threatened to cancel loan commitments to “Western” museums if his conditions were not met. For instance, a series of exhibits in London in 2005 was jeopardized by his insistence to obtain assurances of immunity from seizure. It’s simple. To gain access to the Hermitage’s treasures, museum leaders from around the world must play by Piotrovsky’s rule book.

The Hermitage Museum, which he has headed now for twenty years following in his father’s footsteps, is the pearl of the Russian museum world and an object of global envy and admiration. The Hermitage fuels Russian pride and is used to project Russia’s cultural hegemony. The 1995 display of “trophy art” at the Hermitage was the clearest expression of this sentiment.

The Hermitage is the cultural expression and, as such, the agent of Russian foreign cultural policy. It holds and stewards some of the most important collections in the world of Old Master paintings (from the West), Impressionist works (from the West) and antiquities from all parts of the ancient world (including those that were seized during the liberation by Soviet Army units of the eastern parts of Germany and other countries). It fuels the insatiable appetite of world-class “globalist” or “universalist” museums in Western Europe and North America. Russian leaders make wide use of the museum as a backdrop for high-level encounters with foreign heads of state and their delegations. When was the last time that an American president used the Metropolitan Museum of art or the National Gallery of Art as a similar backdrop to State visits?

To remain competitive and constantly be noticed, American museums through their lobby group, the AAMD, maintain good relations with Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky, and his superiors in the Kremlin, so as to continue to have access to Russia’s cultural riches and to be able to share bragging rights with Russian museums when staging exceptional exhibits.

One of Dr. Piotrovsky’s early allies was Thomas Krens, then director of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, to whom he had asked for advice in creating joint projects that would be of direct benefit to the Hermitage (hence the Russian government) and to American museums.

Piotrovsky's thinking, his vision for the Hermitage is interdependent with that of American cultural institutions. But he does not always share their policies regarding repatriation of looted antiquities to source nations. In an interview that he gave to a Russian news outlet in 2013, Piotrovsky preferred that looted antiquities should only be returned with a court order, seemingly balking at the bilateral talks which led American museums to repatriate looted artifacts to source nations. “American museums should stop giving back various antiquities to the Italians and Greeks without court rulings.”

Piotrovsky is a fierce advocate of the globalist, universalist museum vision, which pretends to transcend all politics. Conversely, he is equally a fierce opponent of “deaccession”, which also includes, restitution of looted cultural assets. In his words, “Deaccession is wrong. A museum is a monument, an organism of history.”

In a 2009 statement issued by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Piotrovsky was described as being totally committed “to cultural diplomacy with the United States.” The Hermitage Museum Foundation is one of the instrumentalities through which these ties are expressed. Does this commitment go as far as seeking to exert influence on the legislative process of the US Congress and encouraging the passage of bills that favor Russia’s position as a global cultural lending power?

In 2011, when a US Federal District Court issued a judgment against Russia, Piotrovsky cancelled all scheduled and future loans to American museums. In his words, he advised American museum directors to “go to the State Department. The problem has to be solved. The year 2013 was declared the year of Russia and the U.S. Now the established cultural relations are under threat.” The reassurances offered by American museum directors to the Russians that the immunity from seizure procedures at the State Department were sufficient to protect Russian loans did not satisfy Piotrovsky.

In short, Piotrovsky, as Russia’s cultural ambassador, works very closely with his American counterparts to ensure that their vision of how museums should steward their collections, even the looted ones, are one and the same, in order to ensure proper cultural relationships in step with Russia’s views of the inalienability of cultural objects in museum collections, a view, by the way, that is routinely echoed and upheld by most European museum directors and their governmental overseers.

S.3155 gets the American museum world one step closer to conform to this arcane view of museum governance and its passage harmonizes AAMD’s vision with that of its European partners.

The new cultural imperialism?